It’s quite easy to sum this up: no wonder it was out of print, and no wonder it was brought back.
Neal Stephenson is a fantastic writer, and I loved the Baroque cycle and Cryptonomicon, and will probably hoover up whichever other books of his I can get my hands on before the new one comes out (hardback in September, apparently). Given his popularity it’s no surprise that his publisher decided to bring this 24-year-old novel back. But was it worth it? Well, you can see signs of what makes him so impressive – great structure, an imaginative alternate but almost true world, and, yes nerdy maths types and fantasy role playing.
But the satire is hard for me to get, since it’s set in a place and time I don’t recognise or care much about (a mid-80’s mid-league american university) and filled with characters that I never cared about either. It’s hard to follow some of the action sequences (which Stephenson has improved greatly in his more recent books) and the ending all comes in a rush, and doesn’t really make a lot of sense.
It’s a good example of a writer learning his craft (similar to Terry Pratchett’s The Carpet People), and as such is interesting (it’s more obvious from this that the younger Neal was heavily involved in live action role play – or at least watched it carefully) but since he has written so much better, why bother?
See also: Baroque Cycle, The Carpet People.